A new version of the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act (SHVERA) is must-pass legislation this year, according to Rep. Rick Boucher, chairman of the House Communications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee.
With that, Boucher presided over a sometimes contentious hearing on reauthorization of the law providing the rules of the road for satellite carriage of local TV stations.
It was the first hearing as chairman for the Democrat from Virginia, who had said satellite reform was on the top of his to-do list, along with broadband build-outs.
Boucher said he wanted to proceed on pretty much a straight line and didn't want to get sidetracked on collateral issues, including retransmission-consent reform, which he said was a topic pertinent to all multichannel providers rather than the satellite delivery of TV stations -- both distant signals and local signals -- the subject of SHVERA.
That proved to be easier said than done, as retransmission-consent reform was an issue raised frequently during the three-hour hearing.
Broadcasters were represented by James Yager, CEO of Barrington Broadcasting and NAB TV board chairman, and CBS executive vice president Martin Franks. They diverged on their approach to the bill, with Yager calling for a measure requiring satellite operators to carry local TV station signals in all 210 markets -- as cable operators are required to do -- and doing away with the distant signal importation regime. For his part, Franks said he supported simply reauthorizing SHVERA as it is.
Satellite operators countered that to make it economically feasible to deliver stations in every market, Congress needed to change the law, including giving providers a break on retransmission-consent deals they argued unfairly favors broadcasters.
Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen said his company did not deliver local stations in all of the nation's 210 DMAs because 32 were all so-called short markets that lacked at least one, or in some cases three or four, network affiliates. Because the law prevented him from importing signals from network affiliates in adjacent markets, consumers wouldn't buy the service.
If that were to change, he said, those markets would get their local stations.
DirecTV senior vice president Bob Gabrielli argued that his company already was able to serve every local market with a device that integrated the satellite channels with an over-the-air tuner.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), used the hearing to push what she said would be her reintroduction of a bill that would essentially force DISH Network to deliver the multicast signals of PBS stations. She pointed out that DirecTV had already agreed voluntarily to do so, and said the bill could be avoided if Dish would follow suit.
The satellite providers also discussed the use of Nielsen DMAs to determine what TV stations could be carried in a market, pointing to areas where the market crossed state lines, which leaves some viewers without state news, weather and other information. They said the DMA system was decades old and in need of revamping.
The providers also took aim at retransmission-consent negotiations, with Ergen saying that the broadcast "monopoly" had gained too much power.
Franks countered by saying the current retransmission-consent system was not broken and did not need fixing, and that the DMAs were determined by a combination of factors including viewing patterns and physics. He said that the vast majority of retransmission deals are resolved quietly and amicably, and that Congress should not legislate based on a very small handful of disputes that result in a short-term loss of TV station signals.
On that score, Franks underwent some tough questioning from Nathan Deal (R.Ga.), a long-time proponent of retrans reform.
Deal said that Franks's pronouncement that retrans wasn't broken and that Congress should agree to a straight reauthorization of SHVERA was the statement "of a monopolist." Deal said he disagreed with Boucher that retrans was not part and parcel of the SHVERA issue
Fellow Republican Steve Buyer of Indiana joined Deal in criticizing the retrans regime. He said that the LIN Broadcasting CBS affilaite going dark in Indianapolis during a retrans fight was not a good thing or in the public interest.
He also brought up reports that CBS' CEO Les Moonves had said back in December that the model is changing and that perhaps networks would move more toward a cable delivery model and cut affiliates out of retransmission-consent money.
Franks said he had been addressing a hypothetical question, and his answer was that something might happen 10 or 15 years down the road. He conceded that the company might need a cut of station's retrans money in order to continue to pay for the high-price programming, like the upcoming NCAA men's basketball tournament, that is also high value, but that it would be "counterintuitive" to abandon local TV given that its owned stations are some of its most valuable assets.